Monday, 28 October 2013

Belfast Festival

The main annual arts festival in Belfast has just closed. It used to be three weeks long but in these austere times has shrunk to ten days. And alongside the budget, it's probably fair to say that the scope and ambition of the festival appears to have become reduced too. Despite this, the festival continues to hold a special place in the cultural year by bringing a range of international performers and events that you would otherwise not get to see here.

I went to a different event on most nights.

'Bullet Catch' by Rob Drummond. This play puts the art of illusion centrestage and was indeed entertaining. I enjoyed the deception and artifice but didnt feel drawn to ponder greater themes, such as the nature of free-will (one of the greater themes that other writers observed during its successful run from the Edinburgh Festival last year).

'Belfast by Moonlight', written by Carlo Gebler and performed by Kabosh. An intriguing play in which six female spirits tell tales from the bloody history of Belfast. I enjoyed the great mix of song and soliloqy in the very atmospheric setting of St Georges Church but didnt feel moved beyond the tales themselves.

'Odarrang' and 'Girls in Airports' at the Elmwood Hall. Two interesting jazz bands from Finland and Denmark. I enjoyed the mix of instruments and styles, Odarrang in particular had Cello and Trombone alongside Guitar and Drums, but the evening was let down by poor sound balance.

The highlights for me were both at the Elmwood Hall.

'Carminho' a Portugese Fado singer with a fantastic voice of real emotional power backed by a wonderful acoustic three-piece band - 12 string guitar, spanish guitar, bass guitar. Powerful songs of love and loss reverberated through the hall, it didnt matter that they were from another language.

'Efterklang' an indie band from Copenhagen who were magnificent. A set of intriguing songs with quirky arrangements performed with wit and aplomb. At times there were echoes of early Roxy Music, at others echoes of the Human League - but there was so much much more beyond this, taking you into jazz and contemporary classical music. All in all, a compelling and unique sound. One of the best concerts I have seen in recent years. Well done Moving On Music.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sing for Life Choir on BBC1

The Sing for Life Choir meets every Monday at 6pm in the Crescent Arts Centre. The choir is for people who have in some way been affected by cancer: whether yourself, or as a partner, friend or relative. This means it's pretty much open to everyone.
We are a community choir of over fifty strong. None of us are particularly expert singers but together we make a good sound, and we all get a great buzz from taking part. We sing a wide range of material from medieval (Gaudete) to traditional (Danny Boy) to soul (Lean on Me). We perform too, with gigs in Arts Centres, Churches and Schools thus far.

Now you can see the Sing for Life Choir in action on the BBC website. Go to  and click on Lifeline.

There you will find the programme that was broadcast yesterday afternoon on BBC1 which featured the choir and also see footage of us in rehearsal singing 'For the Beauty of the Earth' by John Rutter.

Warning: this footage includes a close up of me with my mouth wide open.
Cancer Focus Northern Ireland - Belfast, United Kingdom
A few months ago I did the Belfast Marathon Walk with a team of walkers from the choir to raise money for Cancer Focus (the charity behind the Sing for Life Choir). The sponsorship money is now all in: I raised a total of £830 and together the choir walking group raised over £2500. Thanks again to our many donors for all their generous support.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Summer: In Memoriam

I've finally admitted it. The long, warm Summer is over. It fooled me for a while by extending into early Autumn with bright, sunny days. But nowadays, as soon as the sun goes behind cloud, the cool air bites right into you. And this morning it's lashing.

I luxuriated in the sunshine. Getting a bike from the garage, I began to cycle again - the first time for almost three years. It was wonderful to feel the warm breeze on my face, arms and legs as the hedgerows rushed by and the sun glinted. I went out cycling as regularly as I could, the lack of strength in my legs the main limitation, especially given the steep-sided drumlins you get round this way.

Short-sleeved cycling shirts and shorts were de rigeur for months on end. NI had become Mediterranean: at least in climate, if not in cuisine and consciousness (but lets avoid talking about the rioting season for now). No more was our Summer characterised by three days of downpours for every one of sunshine.

You could actually live more in the outdoors: lunch in the garden and leave the chairs out overnight to do so again the next day; embark on extended outdoor DIY projects secure in the belief that tomorrow you could pick up where you had left off because it would again be warm and dry.

I developed cyclists knees. Firstly, a weathered brown smudge from kneecap to mid-thigh (a line that marked the edge of my cycling shorts). Secondly, an ache in the patella tendon that came on when grinding uphill (a classic overuse injury).

Because of the latter I left the drumlins, did stretching exercises and began to cycle on the Newry canal towpath. This worked well until a couple of weeks ago when I was knocked off my bike by a mad pedestrian. Thankfully I avoided a dip in the canal and stopped short of a bank of nettles, but I came away with bruises and grazes. The pedestrian wandered on with little concern for the havoc they had caused.

I returned to the canal yesterday but was fully togged up with leggings and windproof jacket. It was pleasant, but not the same as those warm halcyon days. Like the swallows, I wish I could migrate to the sun.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Rare Birds

I've just joined a birdwatching group. On my first field trip we spotted migrant birds from Canada and Iceland as well as a rare visitor from Scandinavia.

I'm not used to early starts on Sundays, so I made my sandwiches and packed my bag the night before. At least driving in to Belfast and then up to the north coast was easy going after the shock of the alarm.

As the sun came out after drizzle, the group were esconced in a hide on the Bann estuary with binoculars and telescopes raised. The tide began to fall and the birds became active, finding food on the muddy foreshore. We saw Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew, Greenshank, Grey Plover, Snipe and Bar-Tailed Godwit.

Moving on to the Foyle estuary, near the mouth of the Roe, we saw a large flock of Golden Plover (around a thousand birds) that had flown here from Iceland. At the waters edge around a hundred Brent Geese just arrived from Eastern Canada, via Greenland and Iceland.

On the way between the estuaries we spotted Swallows and Swifts catching insects on the warm breeze, readying themselves for the long flight to Southern Africa. An arduous and attritional 6,000 mile journey that only half of the birds that set out would survive to return here next year.

And striding through the shallows of the Foyle estuary, a huge grey bird with black and white markings - the head of a heron and the body of an emu. A European Crane: a rare visitor from Scandinavia blown off course on its flight to Spain, the first sighting in NI for 30 years. When the winds changed and the air cooled, the Crane would head south for its winter home.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Two Sheds

For most of the past month I've been undertaking a big DIY challenge: the renovation and reconstruction of two garden buildings. Not only did I wrestle with wet rot and win but I also got in touch with the spirit of my late father, a skilled carpenter.

The woman I bought my house from owned a local pet shop, in the corner of the garden was a wooden shed with a small aviary attached. Over the twelve years that followed I happily used these buildings as a storage and dumping ground for gardening tools and suchlike.

Earlier this Summer I generated a list of DIY tasks, one of which was sorting out these buildings. I thought I would just have to paint them with preservative, so I left it to the end of the Summer and got on with other things. Given the years of neglect, I suppose I shouldnt have been surprised to find that both of them were in a very poor state: some wall and floor panels had rotted and worst of all so had parts of the frames. I decided to try and save the shed but thought I would probably have to demolish the aviary.

I set about stripping out the rotten panels and wood from the shed. I treated the remainder with wet rot wood hardener and plugged the large holes in the frame with structural wood-filler. Worried that this repair wouldnt be robust enough, I added structural timbers to the inside of the frame and then replaced the rotten wall panels.

This was a lot of hard physical work. It was also very challenging mentally. Deciding how to renovate the structure, then getting the timbers, cutting them exactly and fixing them in place with heavy screws.

As I child I wanted to be different to my father. He was very good at DIY and gardening. In later life he became a successful carpenter. I often watched him working - but usually from afar.

When I reached a point in my DIY when I didnt know how to do something, I stopped and wished my Dad was still around so that I could ask him. But instead of being completely flummoxed, I found that somehow I did know what to do. The knowledge I needed seemed to be inside me and I was able to puzzle it out. All those years ago, despite my studied separation, I had been paying attention.

After fixing the shed, I set about stripping out the rotten wood from the aviary. All the floor had to go. The frame was in a poor state with wet rot in the one end and down one side.  Emboldened, I decided to try and rebuild it (rather than completing the demolition).

I went through the same process of renovation as with the shed, but this time with larger timbers, more sawing and fixing, more hard physical work. Then I put new wall panels on, made a door and lo and behold I had a second garden shed. After working at this project most days for the past two weeks, I finished painting it yesterday afternoon.

I'm pleased with the results and with my success at this DIY challenge. I feel sure my father would also have been proud of me.

"It is not enough to have a good shed. The main thing is to use it well." Rene Descartes